Matt Groening"And on the Seventh Day Matt Created Bart"
© Loaded Magazine, August 1996.
Fact: The Simpsons is the funniest TV sitcom of all time. There are more gags, funnier gags, more characters, funnier characters, funnier plots, funnier sub-plots. And it's only cartoon blokes! The Simpson family (Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, dog & cat) reside in Springfield, a small and extremely surreal American town. Homer, the father, works in the local nuclear power plant. Bart and Lisa go to a school which Bart, in effect, runs himself. They live near a penitentiary and a toxic waste dump. Nearby there's a yard for discarded tyres which is, says creator Matt Groening, "always on fire".
The Simpsons' success created a moral outrage in America. It shows the American family in all of its oafish and hopeless glory and mercilessly debunks every paranoid and unattainable moral aspiration nurtured by middle class America. Families feud, fathers get drunk, kids run amok at school, school teachers joke about their hopeless students and well, basically everyone is dangerously flawed, inviting anarchy at every corner.
Controversy has never been far away from The Simpsons. Religious groups regularly go berserk and say it's blasphemous; school principals banned neighbourhood terrorist Bart T-shirts from their premises and former First Lady Barbara Bush went on record as saying: "The Simpsons is the dumbest thing I've ever seen." Nevertheless, viewing has gone through the ozone layer. The show is transmitted to over 70 countries worldwide, a fact not lost on former President George Bush who found it intolerable that one of America's most thriving exports was a dysfunctional cartoon family who burped a lot.
Bush went on record as saying that the American public should be more like the Waltons than the Simpsons. The first show transmitted after Bush's remarks features a belter of a scene in which the Simpsons are watching the former Prez on TV deriding them. Homer just looks bewildered and asks why the ex-President guy is talking about them. Bart retorts: "But we're just like the Waltons - we're both praying for an end to the recession." Touch‚ indeed.
Later Groening recorded a full show in which the Bush family moves to Springfield, right opposite the Simpsons. Homer, who at the time is holding court to the entire neighbourhood at the local rummage sale, takes immediate umbrage at Bush when the entire population of Springfield turns its back on him in order to greet the glamorous new neighbours. All out war is soon declared between the two families: Bart shreds Bush's freshly completed memoirs in an outboard motor, Bush spanks Bart, Bart complains to Homer: "I begged him to stop but he said it was for the good of the nation."
Homer is enraged: "First he invades my turf, then he takes my pals, then he makes fun of my voice...probably, and now he steals my right to raise a disobedient, smart-alecky son! Well, that's it!"
Next scene sees Bart and Homer upstairs in Bart's room assembling revenge weaponry:
Homer: "This is gonna be sweet, 200 bottle rockets and George Bush doing toe-touches next to an empty window."
Bart: "You get one up his butt and it's a million points." The next prank sees Bart and Homer luring Bush onto his porch to greet his two sons which are really cardboard cut outs. Bart squirts glue on Bush's head, Homer leaps up out of the ferns and the next thing you know the former President is stood there with a multi-coloured afro wig on his head. Bush retorts by tearing up the Simpsons' lawn with his car. Homer and Bart take to the sewers in order to gain access to Bush's house.
Homer: "So I thought to myself, `what would God do in this situation?'" Camera pans to Bart gleefully carrying a box of locusts.
Homer: "It's all in The Bible, son. It's the prankster's...bible."
Next thing you know Bush and Homer are brawling in the sewer. They emerge onto the street still fighting.
Bush: "I'll ruin you like a Japanese banquet!"
Ex-Soviet leader Gorbachev arrives: "I've just come round to give you a housewarming present. I didn't expect to find you grappling with a local oaf."
Homer (with one hand on Bush's neck): "Oh, yeah Bush, bring in some of your Commie friends to help you fight dirty."
It's absolutely insane, Barbara Bush comes out and makes George apologise to Homer in front of Gorbachev and the entire US TV watching public. The Bush family leaves town with their tails between their legs. George Bush, the real human bloke, laughed the show off with some sarcastic comparison to Oliver Stone. Secretly he must have been licking his wounds for months.
The Simpsons was born when James Brooks, the producer of The Tracey Ullman Show, approached matt Groening (pronounced Graining) about using his Life In Hell cartoon rabbit characters on the show. But Fox wanted more ownership than Groening was willing to surrender. So Groening came up with an entirely new concept - The Simpsons. For the first three seasons, The Simpsons were used as `bumpers' leading in and out of the adverts. In the first season there were 15-20 second segments per show each featuring a punchline and a pay-off. By the third season it was obvious that the US public were mad for it and the segments increased to one and a half minutes. Soon after, Groening had his dream come true when the show was picked up as a full 30 minute prime time animated sitcom.
"If it were not for Matt's dream we would not be doing it," says Brooks. "Matt is a genuine comic artist. There aren't many of these guys. And this is something he wanted to do all his life."
Groening, who modelled The Simpsons on friends and family, was soon completely vindicated. Within months of The Simpsons' first broadcast, enormous sections of the American public were walking round with T-shirts that boasted slogans made famous by 10-year old Bart: "Underachiever And Proud Of it!", "Don't Have A Cow Man", "Eat My Shorts" and "Aye Caramba!". Black Bart t-shirts sold sharply from coast to coast in Compton and Harlem. Virtually overnight, The Simpsons was bigger than Jesus and infinitely more entertaining. I mean, could Jesus burp the national anthem?
Top showbiz types queued up to be on the show so they could be immortalised forever in what fast became America's (slightly more meaningful) version of Madame Tussauds. If you haven't been on The Simpsons, you're a nobody.
All yer top Hollywood stars have appeared at one time or another: Kathleen Turner, Paul McCartney, Elizabeth Taylor, Sting, Johnny Carson, Bette Midler, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Hope, Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Jackson (as a seven foot, white, mental patient if you please!), have all been immortalised in Groening animation and gladly provided the voiceover.
Apart from the superb writing, the show's success is due to the flexibility of the format. Whereas other sitcoms are limited to a couple of locations, animation gives The Simpsons unlimited settings beyond Marge & Homer's humble gaff.
Then there are the spoofs which give the show another enticing dimension. Citizen kane, Thelma & Louise, Rear Window, The Graduate and Wild At Heart have all been parodied. The background detail in an average episode of The Simpsons would make a good half hour of any other programme. When Lisa attended college in a `flash forward' episode, she passed a huge, stately brick building called `Dr & Mrs Dre'. On her dorm was a poster for the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheelchair Tour. "Sometimes we'll work on a freeze-frame joke for hours," says Bill Oakley, The Simpsons' Executive Producer. "We're always trying to put in those layers, which makes multiple viewing fun. We know people like watching a show the second time, when they know what the plot is, so they can enjoy looking for stuff in the background."
Basically, you can't take your eyes off the screen for a second. Thank the good Lord for video rewinds.
And it never gets boring. There are 60 characters in total, all of whom can be utilised and delved into for stores. "A typical Simpsons script is at least twice as dense as an average for a 22 and a half minute situation comedy," says writer David Mirkin, who's also written for Bob Newhart and Gary Shandling. Which is one of the reasons it costs about twice as much to make an episode. ($1.5 million for each Simpsons compared to about $800,000 for other sitcoms.)
The commitment of Simpsons' personnel is incredible. For example, the writers, God bless their cotton socks, spend 15 hours a day, 51 weeks of the year coming up with new material.
With this kind of caper going on, it's no wonder The Simpsons recently eclipsed The Flinstones as TV's longest running prime-time cartoon. This kind of achievement stretches the term `phenomenon' beyond the call of duty. When you talk about meeting your heroes or having the greatest day out of all time you might think of a cup final or going to Disneyland as a nipper. Well, when I was invited to a rare one-on-one audience with Matt Groening, you could have knocked me over with one of Monty Burns' socks...
The rain lashes down across the 20th Century Fox lot. People rush around with trenchcoats buttoned up to the eyebrows like a load of Humphrey Bogarts. It's the kind of day when, back in the '40s, filming would have to be suspended and Bogart would just have to put his feet up and smoked a few Luckies while regaling the chorus girls with tales of his days in Africa.
Matt Groening's PA makes us stand out on the porch of a one-storey building to await our audience with the man. The idea of meeting matt Groening has filled me full of unexpected nerves. It's not every day you meet a bona fide genius. Bloody marvellous.
Groening's PA gestures from the top of the stairs and we scurry up. I walk through his reception area and nudge open his office door. At the end of the room is a bearded man on the phone. He lifts his head, raises his hand in acknowledgement and winks as if to say he's got some berk on the blower but he's got to be nice to him. The room is full of Simpsons memorabilia. Duff Beer cans and Bart dolls clutter up the tops of filing cabinets. On the walls are Simpson covers of Newsweek and Time magazines. There's a drawing board covered with Simpsons posters and magazines waiting to be signed. From here Groening looks like Brian Wilson out of the Beach Boys in his piano- in-the-sand-pit phase. He finishes his call, shouts "loaded!" triumphantly and hops over, shaking my hand warmly and insisting I take his newly purchased iced tea on account of the fact that I look thirsty. "Whatdya make of this stinking weather huh?" Yes it's very nice, I reply inanely. Is this where you work then? You're Matt Groening, the creator, then. What the hell am I saying? `Are you the creator?' course he's the fucking creator, stop saying that you berk. "You OK?" Oh yes, thanks for the tea.
What's the secret of your success then, oh Simpsons' creator?
"I spent a good portion of my youth in front of TV wasting my time so I had to justify all those wasted years. I imagined that if I could ever get anything on TV that reflected what I imagined in my mind it would be widely successful. I came along at exactly the right time. I thought it was gonna be massive. I knew as a captive TV viewer that there was nothing to watch and that kids were watching it anyway. I never knew if adults would give cartoons a chance. The jokes are on different levels. Everyone loves the physical humour, then the pseudo-intellectuals like some stuff and then there are butt jokes that appeal to my kids. I love it when people are all pretentious about it. Doing a cartoon is like being a god, you're creating an entire universe and these characters do horrible things to each other because you tell 'em to."
How do you keep it so amusing?
"It really is tough to try to maintain the standards of what is one of the best shows on television right now. And I say that without patting myself on the back; it's a tribute to the great writers, the writers are unbelievable. I mean while I'm sitting here, yakking to you, there are two rooms, one at that end of the hall, and one at that end of the hall, with writers sitting around being amusing."
Your favourite ever cartoons?
"I loved all animation. Popeye, Betty Boop, Tom & Jerry. All the great classics like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, but I was very encouraged by the success of Rocky & Bullwinkle which showed you could have really lousy animation as long as the writing, the music and the voices were great. What I loved was you were taking ink and paint and making something come alive the way someone really would behave if they were in that colourful universe... explain to me what loaded is again?"
Errrrr, it's a bit like your colourful Springfield universe actually...
"Ha ha ha ahah Uh huh! Ha ha haaah, yeah... OK! I've looked at a few issues and woah! English people actually put people under 30 on the cover. Over here it's the same old multi-millionaire faces over and over again."
When did you realise you'd made it?
"The moment when it really hit me was watching the 60 foot inflated Bart floating down Fifth Avenue in New York City's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. That was pretty wild. Someone asked me at the start when I'd be able to say we made it and I said when we get The Simpsons On Ice, and the following year we had it! All the witty dialogue was lost. There was just all this arm waving and stuff."
What's this about Prince blowing you out?
"Hahahaaaa, you heard about that?! That long list of celebs and rock groups who've made their availability known. Prince was delighted to be on the show at first but he started referring to parts that weren't in the script and it turned out he was referring to a script written by his chauffeur. Hahahaha! Which didn't meet with our stringent Simpsonian standards so that was a disappointment. We've got one with Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Cypress Hill and Peter Frampton of all people. We tried to get Courtney Love but she felt like she was already too much of a cartoon character. Kirk Douglas is coming up and that's pretty good."
"Michael Jackson wanted to do the show. He was a big fan and it was my idea to have him play a 300 pound white guy. We presented the idea to him and he laughed, so that was great. He also anonymously wrote the `Do The Bartman' single and I'm still stunned that no one figured it out, especially when the lyrics had `I wanna be bad like Michael Jackson'! It's never been picked up by anyone in all this time... until I just told you!"
What about the great lost scenes...
"We had a scene where we go to the Itchy & Scratchy studio and Lisa and Bart go to the room where the writers get their inspiration and they see a cat on the table and the writer puts a stick of dynamite in its mouth and sets it on fire, ha haaahahaaa... and then we cut to outside the room and there's this explosion. Fox censored it because it was a `real' cat, ha ahahaahaaahah! I wanna do a cartoon show that Itchy & Scratchy watch so we can have a cartoon within a cartoon within a cartoon.
Yeah, where humans get mutilated.
"Hhhhmmm... that's really good actually."
Just write a check out for $530,000...
"There were times when Itchy & Scratchy cartoons go too far even for the relatively lax Fox censorship. There's this scene where Itchy... wait which is Itchy?... Itchy's the mouse, right, ha ahaha. Itchy pricks Scratchy repeatedly with a pin and blood comes out in many many luminous droplets and Fox said `No, too much blood'. Also when Itchy gouges out Scratchy's eye with a broken beer bottle, that got censored too."
Which are your own favourite characters?
"I love Apu and Milhouse and Police Chief Wiggum. With Apu, that kind of character has not been seen before on US TV. I don't know about the UK. He's so extremely happy in his job. One of the things about The Simpsons universe is that everybody in their jobs seems to be dedicated to screwing whoever comes in contact with them but they take great joy in it. Another great character is the sarcastic cartoon bookseller, he's fantastic."
Have you ever been banned from a country?
"Actually yes. We got kicked off the air in Costa Rica for a while for being anti family values, but American media imperialism will triumph in the end! I'm not happy about seeing pictures of little third world kids playing with grubby Bart Simpson dolls, doesn't make my day but what can I do? I'm in Hollywood man."
What about making a full length feature film?
"Yeah, someday, but anything involving signing a new contract with The Simpsons means that people involved with producing the show come out of nowhere and it's hard to read the contracts after the aliva is wiped off because everyone's drooling for the immense amount of money they think they're entitled to. I imagine it's highly unlikely we'll ever do one. It's a shame because there should have been two or three movies by now."
What about all the religious nutters slagging you off?
"We got criticised from the beginning to this day. There's an old charge that we're encouraging kids to be insolent and disobey their teachers and more specifically be proud to be underachievers. The political point I was trying to make with those T-shirts is that no kid calls themselves an underachiever, that's a label applied by grown-ups and that if you're labelled an underachiever you might as well be proud of it. We also had an overachiever T-shirt for Lisa, ha ahaha, which didn't sell as well, ha ahahah. The men have no self- awareness at all in The Simpsons and the women are on the verge of gaining some. I think that Lisa might escape Springfield eventually so there's hope for her."
Do you ever get paranoid that the writers will bugger it all up?
"The show's been an experiment from the word go. The first episode was lost because the director put in all these bad jokes of... paintings on the wall of horses crapping and stuff, really bad useless jokes, so that'll never be seen!"
Sounds like our letters page.
"He didn't think the scripts were funny so we got rid of them. We found you can tell a lot more jokes and a lot more storey than people generally do in animation. The first 13 episodes were really research and we went from there. The show is very carefully written, and rewritten, and rewritten, and rewritten and I ask the writers why we've maintained such brilliant shows for 150 episodes and they always tell me because we work 24 hours a day now!"
There's a thin line between funny and just ridiculous...
"That's the hardest thing, keeping the characters true to themselves. In animation you have no rules, characters can walk off the end of a cliff and keep walking but we don't do that. It has to be real. It's a constant correcting process, `no we can't do that, we can't do that!'
The writers have their own characters they really hate and they wanna kill 'em off. They all seem to wanna kill off Maggie for some reason. We've killed a couple, Bleeding Gums Murphy, Dr Marvin Munro, no explanation with that one. We can't kill Monty Burns though, he's the ultimate villain."
Has anyone ever done a porno Simpsons?
"We do get a lot of people sending some weird stuff in and it's reassuring to know that Marge has blue pubic hair, that is the true mark of having arrived."
So who are you most like then, out of the Simpsons?
It's not Ned Flanders is it?
"No, it's not Ned Flanders... I guess it would be Homer, you know, I like donuts... say have you guys had Disco Stu yet?"
"Homer had a garage sale and he was selling his `Disco Stud' jacket. He'd put the rivets on by hand, but he didn't have room on the jacket to get the letter `D', so it said, `Disco Stu', and, amazingly enough, he ran into a guy named Disco Stu, but Disco stu didn't want the jacket, 'cause he said: `Disco Stu doesn't advertise.'"
Where did you get `Doh' from? [Car alarm goes off outside...]
"No, I mean Doh! really. That's my car; somebody is breaking into my car. [He leaves, and returns two minutes later] OK. Oh, er `Doh!', I wrote it in the script as `annoyed grunt', and that's how it's written in all the scripts."
Annoyed Grunt, right.
"Yes, Doh! comes from an old character actor named James Finlayson."
I remember him, from Laurel and Hardy. "Yes. Then he had a few of his own shorts too. In fact, I have..."
Oh yeah, he was very amusing, used to say `Doh' all the time.
"Yeah, `Dooooh!' Yeah. Yes, so, I think that's the thing that I'm most proud of. Ha aha ha!"
When we're done, he doesn't leap up and leg it out the place like most highly successful showbiz individuals in his area. Instead, he settles down at his drawing board, unravels a huge Simpsons poster and asks me if I'd like one. Not fucking many! I mean, yes, that'd be great. In keeping with The Simpsons' reputation for always giving the punter more than they're expecting, Groening gets a big marker pen out, enquires as to my favourite character and proceeds to draw me a personalized Bart Simpson which strikes me as one of the most marvellous moments of my natural. His PA hands him some more stuff to sign and he does the same to every single magazine, picture and poster. Each one takes him about three minutes to do which makes you completely hate your regular showbiz berk who'll sign one poxy autograph and leave a trail of heartbroken young individuals in their wake. So let's take advantage of the bugger and get him to sign a few more for me mates.
"The Loafer?" enquires Matt. I explain how Loafer got to be working at loaded. "What, this guy just loafs about your office all day and doesn't really do anything? And you pay him. Because he's amusing? Hhhhhmmm, yeah, that's pretty neat!"
He then signs one for another mate who does an agony column for a woman's magazine.
"Let me get this right," says Matt, grinning all over his face. "This guy has thousands of young women writing to him asking for his advice on really sensitive issues that might affect them one way or the other forever. And he's no more qualified than you or I? ...Hhhhhmmmm, that's pretty neat too."
He then poses for 30 minutes of photos even though we're only supposed to get five minutes because he appreciates the fact that we've come all the way from Blighty to see him. "loaded is completely neat," he tells us as we quaff a see-ya-later cuppa. "It's crazy, single minded, like The Simpsons."
Yeah, pretty damn neat. And it's only cartoon blokes!
Submitted by Brian Petersen
Last updated on February 22, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)